Writing is Hard: A New Semester

Following my earlier blog post about my writing “system”, I have noticed that disruptions of routine are tough to weather, so I thought I’d write a bit about how I’ve been persisting.

I recently had a 2-week period of travel and transition while everyone’s schedules changed for a new university semester, and I visited family, and it was rough! When you have momentum it is very frustrating to lose it, but the good thing is that recommitting to the rituals you established before seems to be the key to getting back on track. Here’s what I’ve done for myself:

Step 1: Maintain as many constants as possible

Routines need not be seen as limitations or restrictions – they can help you establish work habits that allow you to expand creatively once you are sitting with your butt in the writing chair (there are lots of blogs on what works for specific writers, like this one, or this one, if you’re curious). For me, routines are how I avoid convincing myself that I will “have more insight another day” or “I am not good enough today” to accomplish the tasks ahead. When a new semester comes, my work space and the schedule of everyone around me has changed, so my writing routine is distrupted in two main ways: the days I check in with writing buddies are different, the places I work are more chaotic and may not have space for me. I address this by making a list of what has not changed so I can keep those things up as much as possible. This semester I decided I would stick to the same places I write (3 places outside home, plus my dining room table), show up at the same times I always do, and bring headphones every time. Working in the same physical spaces has made it much easier to adjust to a new schedule. 

Step 2: Introduce new routines one at a time

If you can, don’t change your whole schedule at once. I guess this is a logical extension of step 1 but bear with me. I tried to do a bunch of new stuff and just be OK with that, despite what I knew about the power of consistency. When I noticed that, despite doing hours of work each day, I was not accomplishing my (reasonable) goals, I decided I’d better wait until next week to start writing in a new place. Instead I focused on revisiting the same writing spaces to accomplish what I needed to get done, and powering through the most important tasks on my list. A few tasks had to come off the list while I did this, but I finished an important revision and several other tasks that I had been hung up on.

Now I am back in the groove so I am adding a new routine (writing in a new library carrel with a new writing buddy) and  writing down my new weekly schedule on paper (using a template like this one).

Step 3: Don’t skip your day(s) off

If working through every day without a break at least once a week has not left you less productive or more tired than usual, I salute you. I am not one of those people and I assume most people need a break once a week. Sometimes I need two days in a row – a whole weekend (gasp!) – to get the rest of my life in order so I can focus on work the rest of the time. Cleaning, cooking, tending to personal relationships, and sleeping are not just nuisances getting in the way of work. For that matter, don’t skip sleeping in general. At least for me, having a consistent sleep and break schedule has made the biggest impact on my ability to work well every day I set out to do so. (Have you ever noticed that humans behave more impulsively, sloppily, and get frustrated more easily when they’re exhausted?)

Step 4: Avoid setting work deadlines during travel

I told myself I’d finish a publication revision while visiting my extended family. Yeah right, Past Kate. I knew it would be a busy, emotionally challenging trip to a city I was not familiar with, and that the time difference would make me tired. If you do well during travel because it is invigorating – by all means set deadlines during that time! I know some of you grade and do other things well at conferences, but for me it’s always a disaster. I get more done if I stay up the night before finishing the grading instead. There are too many people, things, and anxieties lurking in the travel experience for me to write well. I guess observe your own behavior and don’t set unrealistic goals. Don’t be like Past Kate.

Step 5: Reflective writing

I have found that after getting over a hump I do better if I do an hour or so of reflective writing – what worked, what didn’t, and how will I use this information about myself to fuel better practices in the future? I assume that this blog will be valuable to me next time I have a new semester or travel debacle. I assume. We will find out if that’s the case, in time. (I’m sure when I look back on this and see how many verb tenses I used, I will cringe, but that’s the nature of free-writing, I suppose.) Now that I’ve done my hour, I better go do the next task on my list: turning my dissertation draft feedback into items for my Project List! Next deadline in 5 weeks – let’s do this!

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